The Savannah College of Art and Design occupied the former National Guard Armory that had been decommissioned after the war. The elegant red stone structure on Bull Street had decorative arched windows to provide natural light, and plenty of open space. There was no dormitory at the college, so the school had taken over a few nearby apartments and guesthouses to shelter their eclectic blend of students. Harold felt completely out of place as he entered the building.
Every one he passed was young, dressed in black or in strangely conspicuous clothing, with hairstyles that didn’t fit the mode of the day, and their own way of talking. They stared at him as if he were freshly arrived from Mars. That was exactly how he felt. He found the registrar’s office on his own. He was pleased to see that the woman behind the desk, in her wire-rim glasses and her rayon dress that had a demure lace collar, was a far more familiar type to him than were the students. He showed her the picture of Johnny Randolph and asked if he were a student here.
“He’s registered,” she gave him an evasive answer, and Harold picked up on it immediately.
“Meaning he hasn’t been to class lately. He’s about to be dropped.”
“How long since he’s been to class?”
“Is he in trouble? You know the Arlen family pays Johnny’s tuition. If there’s a problem…”
“No problem. I just need to talk to the kid.”
She looked something up in a ledger and said, “The last time he was here was Friday a week ago.”
“Any idea where he is?”
“Why would I know a thing like that? Talk to Mr. Friedman. He’s his faculty advisor.”
“Where would I find him?”
“He teaches live drawing, third floor. His first class should be ending right about now.”
Harold thanked her and inwardly groaned a little at the thought of three flights of stairs, but they weren’t going to climb themselves. He took his time, letting his knee rest between flights. By the time he got to the top, his leg was cramping. He stretched his calf by flexing his foot on the top step and then asked a passing student where he could find Friedman. She waved him towards a room with a half-glass door. He peered in at twenty or so students standing at easels as they sketched a young man dressed in the briefest of swimwear, if it could be called that. It barely concealed his genitals in a flesh colored pouch, as his muscular body reclined on a chaise in a studied pose.
Harold stared at the unexpected spectacle of watching a young, mixed group study and translate this bare, masculine beauty onto paper. School had changed since he was a student, but then he never went to college. Apparently the class ended, because students began to pack up their things and leave. The model stood, stretched his fine form and slipped into a robe. He walked out ahead of the class. Harold presumed he was on his way to find his clothes somewhere.
“See something you like?” He said to Harold as he encountered him watching at the door. Harold said nothing, arching a single brow in response. The handsome young man laughed.
“You the next model?”
“Do I look like a model?”
“You could be.”
“That’s because you haven’t seen the rest of me.”
“We could change that,” the guy winked as he said it. Harold had to smile. What balls he had, and not just the pair slung in that pouch.
“You know a student named Johnny Randolph?”
“I don’t know any of the students. We’re not allowed to fraternize.”
“Okay,” others began to file past them and the model leaned closer to Harold as he whispered,
“You don’t look like a student to me. Know the Blue Parrot?”
Harold shrugged. “Heard of it.” It was a bar near the Negro quarter where right-thinking people would never venture. The police raided it on a regular basis and yet its patrons kept coming back. They had nowhere else to go.
“I’ll be there tonight. Let me buy you a drink.”
Harold said nothing and the guy walked on with a smile. Shaking off the invitation, Harold went into the classroom and approached the one man old enough to be the instructor. “Are you Friedman?”
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said as he continued his critique of a young man’s sketch. Harold waited, and finally Friedman looked up at him. He was a little guy, jockey-sized, and intense. He dressed much like the students, in unseasonably dark clothes. “You would be?”
Harold introduced himself and said, “I’m here about one of your students. Johnny Randolph.”
The little man tensed. “Let’s go to my office, shall we?”
“As long as it isn’t up another flight of stairs.”
It wasn’t. They stopped at a door with the man’s name painted on the glass. Inside, the walls were full of sketches he had taped to the plaster, all by different artists. Some were of men, like the model. Others were of naked women. Harold sat down on the other side of the instructor’s desk and asked, “Your students draw naked pictures?”
“It’s called ‘life drawing’, sir. It’s the study of the human form for the artistic eye, not pornography.”
Looking at the frank poses and bold sketches, Harold was having a difficult time seeing the difference. Few girlie magazines he had seen were this revealing. “Why are the men partially dressed but the women are not?”
“It’s not considered on for young ladies to draw male genitalia. The reverse doesn’t offend in the same way.”
Harold didn’t pursue that line of inquiry. The whole thing didn’t seem quite “on” to him. But then, he was no artist. “Do you know Johnny Randolph?” He pulled out the photograph. The man glanced at it and then challenged,
“Why do you want to know? Are you with the police?”
“No, this is a private matter. I’m working for his family. Do you know him?”
“Of course I know him. He’s a student,” he motioned to a sketch of a woman that was prominently displayed on the wall. Among the sketches, this one had an added intensity, some unexpressed tension in the model’s pose and in her expression. Instead of just a line drawing of a woman’s form, it was a representation of her mood and a sense of desperation came through. “He did that. He’s absolutely brilliant. Extremely gifted.”
“When’s the last time you saw him?”
“Last week. Has something happened to Johnny?”
“Missing, is he? Why would Johnny go missing? Maybe you should have a word with George Arlen, Junior.”
Harold sensed some bitterness in that suggestion. “Why?”
“He’s Johnny’s patron.”
“Time honored tradition, the artist and his patron. The patron has the money, the artist has the talent. One feeds off the other.”
“How do you know Arlen?”
“Are you serious?”
“As a tomb.”
“Everyone in the art community of Savannah knows the Arlen family. They’re benefactors of the arts. They have an extensive art collection. And George Junior is known to collect, shall we say, undiscovered talent along with his art.”
The unspoken messages were coming through to Harold, who nodded. “Collect their works or something else?” Friedman gave him a “figure it out for yourself” shrug. Harold pressed on. “Has Johnny talked to you about Arlen?”
“Not much. But we all know Arlen pays his tuition and that Johnny lives in Arlen’s home. Or at least he did.”
“Has he seemed worried or distracted lately?”
“Johnny is generally a very sunny personality. Don’t be duped by the old saw that artists are all brooding and intense. Some are, usually artifice. But Johnny’s a delight. No pretense there. His extreme talent seems to surprise him most of all. Everyone likes to be around Johnny.”
Friedman glared at Harold. “Don’t imply some funny business between any of my students and myself. And don’t jump to the conclusion that because I’m an artistic type, I must also be a homo. I’m not. I don’t care who is, I’m not part of that witch hunt, but I’ve been happily married for fifteen years, and we have three kids. It’s not about sex, so get your mind out of that gutter.”
“Then what’s the basis of your admiration for Johnny Randolph?”
“It’s about that rare commodity called true genius, Harold. I’m a pretty good artist myself. I sell my work, I enjoy what I do, and I like teaching students the basic techniques. But I don’t have that spark of genius that Johnny has. Few do. None, that I’ve taught. But like so many before him, that genius comes with negatives.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the fact that he has to depend on others to support him. The fact that he isn’t conventional is viewed as a negative. The fact that society refuses to allow him to exist as his own man, and the fact that nature made him beautiful, as well as talented, which has the effect of painting a bull’s eye on his forehead.”
“Did he say anything to you about problems he was having?”
Friedman looked like he was going to inform Harold, but then he caught himself. “No.”
“Do you know where he’d go if he were trying to get away from here?”
“I think he has family in Atlanta, but I got the impression he was not welcome there.”
“Why is that?”
“Just something he said once. I don’t recall his exact words. He just made me think that he and his family had split.”
“What about friends?”
“What about them?”
“Does he have any?”
“Everyone loves Johnny. Girls, boys, they’re all his friends. Like I said, he’s a sunny personality.”
“Can you point me to his closest friend?”
“I don’t generally keep up with the social lives of my students, and Arlen occupied a lot of Johnny’s free time. I’ve seen him with Molly Ford quite a bit.”
Friedman leaned back in his chair, closing another gate. “I wouldn’t know.”
Harold suspected he did know. “Is she missing too?”
“No. I saw her walk by when we were on the way to my office.”
“Do you know where I can find her?”
“She’s in my three o’clock class. Other than that, no. I don’t know her schedule.”
“If you think of anything else, just leave a message at this number. I’ll call you back.” Harold gave him Frannie’s phone number. Now that he had some cash, he needed to get a line hooked up at his office, and maybe one at his grandmother’s house. They’d had a phone, off and on, depending on their finances.
“If you’re working for Arlen, tell him the kindest thing he can do is to just leave the boy alone.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because that’s what I think.”
Harold left the little man in his office and slowly descended the stairs to return to the lady in the registrar’s office. When he asked about Molly Ford, she seemed tense. He could tell she was getting worried that she was saying too much about the students. Harold saw the photo of a soldier on her desk and asked, “Did he make it back safely? Your soldier?”
Surprised by his shift in conversation, she replied, “Yes, thank you for asking. He’s my brother. He fought in Normandy.”
“Me too. 2nd Division.”
“Is that where you got that limp?”
Harold shook his head, annoyed that all those stairs had made his hitch visible today. “This was a gift from the Ardennes.”
“You fought both battles?”
“I was a lucky one, too. I also made it back.”
He felt a little guilty using the war, but what the hell. The war owed him. She softened towards him. “I can’t give you Molly’s schedule, but I will tell you this. During breaks, most of the students go over to the Garden Room café and have coffee and donuts. I’ve seen Molly over there often.”
“How would I recognize her?”
She smiled. “You can’t miss Molly. Look for the girl with the jet-black flapper hairstyle and vintage 1920’s clothes. Molly thinks she’s a character out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. She even has a cigarette holder. Of course the kids can’t smoke here, but they all smoke when they’re away from here. If you see a group of boys gathered somewhere, Molly will likely be the focal point of that gathering. She’s like honey to flies with the boys.”
Harold thanked her and as he turned to go, she said, “Bless you for your sacrifice. We do appreciate everything you did for us.”
He thanked her and left, feeling guilty again about trotting out his war experiences. Sacrifice. A bum leg was no sacrifice. But he gave at the front, that’s for sure. He gave so much he had nothing left now. Harold walked across the square to the Garden Room café and bought a bear claw and a cup of joe as he sat down to wait.
“You know what I miss the most? Donuts,” Dutch approached Harold the morning after their encounter in the cooks’ dugout. The men were shoveling down their powdered eggs and coffee. He acted like nothing untoward had happened between them. Harold’s feet were bothering him that morning. He hadn’t slept well because of that and because of thoughts of this kid. The temperature was dropping. He could feel it in his bones and in the sting against his exposed flesh. How the hell cold could it get here, he wondered? Was there no bottom to the plummet?
“Beat it,” Harold warned and Dutch grinned at him.
“Relax. I can take a hint.”
“Then take this one and vamoose.”
“Do you like donuts?”
“Who doesn’t like donuts?” Harold was exasperated by this kid’s persistence.
“Krauts call them krullers.”
“You speak kraut?”
“No, not really. A little Spanish.”
“That won’t help you much here.”
“Do you think we’ll see any action here? I don’t. We’re just protecting some invisible line, I guess. They don’t tell us anything. But the word we get from you guys is that there’s no fighting going on here and none expected.”
“The war has a way of surprising you.”
“What do you think?”
“I’m thinking you may be one of those fucking Nazis they dress up in our uniforms and drop into our camps because you maybe lived in America or something and look American and talk American. But you also look like one of those fucking Aryan God poster boys that the Nazis like so much. Isn’t ‘Dutch’ the kraut word for ‘German’? Are you a fucking spy, pretty boy?”
Dutch laughed and squatted to use fresh snow to clean his mess kit before returning it to his pack. “Your mind works in strange ways, Harold.”
“So who’s Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend?”
“You’re kidding, right?” He stood, staring at Harold as if he were trying to read his mind. Harold swung his rifle around to aim it squarely at the kid’s chest.
“Soldier, I’m asking you a question. Who is Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend?” It was a common code they used to expose infiltrators.
“Minnie,” Dutch said with a glare. “And his dog’s name is Pluto and his best friend is Donald Duck, or maybe Goofy is his best friend. Mickey Mantle plays for the Yankees and Springfield is the capital of Illinois. And if you’re calling me a spy, then you can drop that fucking gun and come get a little of this!” He assumed a boxing stance, with his fists ready to slam. Harold lowered his weapon and sighed.
“Walk off, soldier. They don’t look kindly on us beating on each other. Okay, so you’re not a spy.” Harold winced and sat down on a crate, stomping his heels on the ground to revive his feet.
“I got the damned trench foot. Seems to be getting worse instead of better.”
“You seen a medic?”
“For what it’s worth. Nothing much they can do except tell you to keep changing your socks to keep your feet dry. The rub is, you don’t have extra socks to change into.”
“You can have my extras.”
In that moment, Harold’s opinion of Dutch shifted. “You hang on to them, soldier. You’ll need them. We’re moving on soon. Maybe we’ll roll out of this ice box.”
“I come from Florida where it’s marshy and wet. When we would go hunting, my brothers and me, we’d rub oil on our boots to keep the water out. I took a little oil from under a truck and gave my boots a good rubdown. I think it helps with the wet snow.”
Harold had never heard that. He was impressed. “May be too late for me.”
Dutch disappeared and then came back with his bare hands covered in motor oil. He knelt before Harold and smeared the substance over one boot and then the other, except on the soles because of the slip factor. Other soldiers walking by laughed at the spectacle of one guy rubbing the boots of another, asking if he planned on licking them when he was done. Their remarks were ignored by Dutch and Harold. Dutch then used snow to clean his hands and quickly buried them in his gloves. “See if that helps.”
“Very kind of you. Thanks.”
“Not at all. I have to report for artillery training. See you around, Mickey Mouse.”
“Yeah, see you around, Minnie,” Harold said with a laugh.
“Want a refill?” the offer of fresh coffee from the waitress brought Harold back to 1948. He nodded, shuddering as a sudden chill wafted over him and his feet began to ache with phantom pain. Before he fell too far down that well, he looked up to see a group of kids enter the café with noisy enthusiasm. Most were male, but in the midst of them was a petite, pretty girl in a red beaded dress with a low waist and short hem that reminded Harold of the pictures of women in his family album from a happier time, when he was a child. Her hair was shiny, black and cut with great precision. She pulled an ebony cigarette holder from a bag and beamed as several boys competed to light it. Harold smiled at her showmanship and got up to approach the table where she held court.
“Who wants to know?” One of the boys challenged him. Harold gave him a patient warning look.
“I do. You have a problem with that, sonny boy?”
The boy retreated, and wisely so. The girl said, “Yes, I’m Molly Ford. Who are you?” Her smile was wide and welcoming. She was used to playing men and was prepared to use those skills on Harold. Her eyes were a beguiling shade of violet. Harold had never seen eyes that color, so he was intrigued by them, empathizing with her troop of admirers.
“My name’s Harold. I’m a private detective. I’m looking for Johnny Randolph.”
Her big smile, her big game, both suddenly vanished and she looked very young and very vulnerable, like a little girl playing dress up. The boys around her grew quiet. She dismissed them with an imperial wave of her hand and motioned for Harold to sit down at her table. “Why do you want to find Johnny?”
“I mean him no harm whatsoever. He just has people worried about him, that’s all.”
“Count me in,” she said as those violet eyes filled with tears, threatening her mascara. She put a hand on his forearm. Her red nail polish was chipped in a couple places, the only chinks in her precise appearance. “I’m desperate to find Johnny.”
Harold nodded, believing he just hit a mother lode of information.